Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008 under a unique set of circumstances. In a time of crisis, recession, and despair he was voted in on a wave of hope and excitement. It had been decades since a president had such rock star status with such high expectations. His election motto “change we can believe in” was an accurate representation of how people around the world felt. While expectations were high for Obama’s domestic policies expectations were at their highest regarding foreign policy.

After eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency America was bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s war on terror strained relations with the Muslim world. Relations with Europe had also suffered, in large part from opposition to the war in Iraq where the US attempted to legitimate its unilateral strategy using divide and conquer methods. This happened by categorizing Europe in terms of ‘old’ and ‘new’ and using the term ‘a coalition of the willing’ which also assumed that there was a coalition of the unwilling. This backdrop explains how Barack Obama’s expectations were able to reach such high levels.

Just after a few months of taking office, he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2009 which was based on the assumption that he would be able to meet many of the high expectations. This came in large part from two rock star speeches, one in Berlin and the other in Cairo. Before assuming the presidency in 2008, some 200,000 gathered for a speech in Berlin where Obama branded himself a citizen of the world and called for an end to the Iraq war as well as progress in battling nuclear proliferation. A short time later in 2009 Obama spoke in Cairo of a new beginning between the Western and Islamic world where mutual respect and mutual interest. It seemed a new beginning for US foreign policy as well.

A changing transatlantic relationship

While many European leaders were happy to see Obama elected into office, his presidency immediately highlighted a more subtle tension in transatlantic relations. Obama brought a much welcomed commitment to multilateralism and diplomacy yet also brought his post-European world view to the presidency. A relatively young Obama (born 1961, making him 15 years younger than George W. Bush) was not overly influenced by the Second World War or the Cold War. He grew up in Hawaii, spending time in Indonesia as well. This world view coupled with ongoing world developments meant new challenges for the transatlantic relationship.

The first challenge was a decision to reset relations with Russia. Relations between Russia and the US had been good for a short time when Putin first entered office. He was the first to call to offer his condolences to George W. Bush after 9/11. Perhaps Putin saw this as a chance to legitimate Russia’s harsh policy towards extremism in the Caucus region. After a promising start to bi-lateral relations under the Bush presidency, relations quickly soured with Russia firmly opposing the Iraq war. NATO enlargement and NATO plans for missile defense saw the relationship worsen. Obama’s decision to reset relations with Russia was a concern particularly for countries in Eastern Europe who traditionally had been more skeptical of Russia. More worrisome yet was Obama’s decision to pivot or rebalance US foreign policy towards Asia.

Obama’s foreign strategy to pivot to Asia was problematic for allies in Europe for several reasons. The first was simply a point of style. The word pivot implies that an actor is turning away from one region to the other. The Obama team had to assure European allies that the Asian pivot was not a pivot away from European allies, but hopefully a pivot with European allies towards different regions in the world. This policy was later renamed a rebalance not a pivot. European fears were stoked by the second and more prevalent aspect of the pivot. More US troops were placed in Australia and Guam. This coincided with a reduction of US troops and military hardware in Europe. Plans for missile defence were scaled down as part of the Russian reset policy. Tensions have always existed in the transatlantic relationship, as Robert Kagan famously stated “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”. Yet these tensions represented a something profoundly different for the transatlantic relationship.

These changes were in part based on Obama’s world view but also changing interest for the United States. The rise of China called for more US engagement in the region. The tensions did not represent a profound difference of opinion between US and European allies or disdain for certain policies by one party. Instead these developments highlighted the diminishing relevance of Europe for the United States. This was only reinforced by the role of US leadership in NATO’s military mission in Libya. The US clearly demonstrated its limited interest in the region by encouraging Europe to take the lead in the military mission. This policy was dubbed ‘leading from behind’ by many pundits in the US. What many feared in Europe was that the US was leaving Europe behind in favor of the Asia-Pacific region.

From left, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Slovenian Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek, President of Croatia Ivo Josipović, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and President of Romania Traian Basescu watch a flypast of military aircraft on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. Photo: Scanpix

The return

It appeared that these trends would continue indefinitely due to the rise of China, the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other global issues drawing US interest away from Europe such as piracy. The shift away from Europe towards Asia proved short lived and instead we have seen another pivot, this time back to Europe.

The last few years have presented economic and security challenges for both the US and Europe. The result of these challenges has been a renewed partnership. For the US a potential challenge is the cooperation of the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). They have recently launched a New Development bank and continue to move towards providing an alternative global financial system. For Europe, economic problems continue. While there is no longer an imminent ‘euro crisis’ unemployment and stagnant growth continue with no end in sight. Together these challenges have in part provided the incentive for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). While Obama is certainly not known for his support of free trade deals, he is a strong supporter of this agreement. This deal would boost GDP growth and create jobs by harmonizing regulation which would reduce transaction costs for both goods and services. In many ways this agreement would further entrench the US and Europe as leaders of the global financial system. Despite US economic interests in Asia, geopolitical developments brought the US and Europe back together again as champions of a liberal economic order.

Obama’s reset policy with Russia did not last long. While the US and Russia still cooperate on a number of important areas such as counter terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and the international space station, US-Russia relations are currently at an all-time low in the post-Cold War era. This is not necessarily Obama’s fault. Several US presidents have attempted to improve relations with Russia only to fail. While Finland and China have proven that it is possible to have positive relations with Russia (or at least normal relations) it has proven especially difficult for the US. The United States’ well intended policies towards Russia’s neighbors paved the way for worsening relations due to Russia’s overly sensitive geopolitical concerns.

The ongoing Ukraine conflict has cemented Obama’s return to Europe. Rather than hinting that Europe had more to lose and thus should take the leading roll, the US has taken the lead in issuing sanctions towards Russia and in giving reassurances to NATO allies, notably the Baltic states and Poland. In yet another rock star speech, this time in Tallinn Estonia, Obama reiterated the equality of all NATO members and the commitment to collective defense. This and other NATO policies have caused some to speculate that the reinvigoration of NATO will be Obama’s greatest legacy.

The most interesting developments with the Ukraine conflict are those which have not happened. There has not been a large division among European allies on policy towards Russia (France’s potential Mistral ship sale being perhaps the lone exception). This certainly has been the case in past conflicts such as the Iraq war and NATO’s Libya mission. In addition there has been no split among BRICS towards Russian aggression in Ukraine. Other BRICS countries have been very cautious and have not been critical towards Russia on the subject in order to maintain solidarity among. These developments have cemented the United States’ pivot back to Europe.

While the Ukraine crisis certainly was the key event in bringing the US back to Europe, it certainly is not the only one. Iraq has since erupted in chaos as ISIS, a radical Sunni based militant group aims to create a caliphate in portions of Iraq and Syria. Reluctantly, Obama has outlined a plan to combat ISIS. To do this he gathered up a group of willing nations, mostly from Europe, although a number of Arab states have pledged support in various ways. This seems somewhat similar to Bush’s coalition of the willing. Like Obama’s failed pivot to Asia, the goal of improving relations with the Islamic world have also failed. In the ashes of large dreams, are specific plans of action with old European allies.

This is not to say that there are no problems in the transatlantic relationship or that there will not be any future problems in the transatlantic relationship. The spy row between Germany and the US lingers and reflects on a lack of trust between the two. Future challenges will certainly arise as well. But for the foreseeable future it appears that those challenges will all be within the traditional framework where the transatlantic relationship is the key partnership for both Europe and the US.

Barack Obama was elected US president with a mandate to change the world. Six years later he has rejuvenated NATO, cemented relations with Europe, spoken the harshest words to Russia since the Cold War, and once again begun a military operation in Iraq with an assortment of European allies. Obama did not change the world, the world changed him. Because of the events of the past six years, Obama’s worldview is now very much Eurocentric. And that is change Europe can believe in.

Matthew Crandall is lecturer of International Relations at Tallinn University